Talking Heads: Political Talk Shows and Their Star Pundits, by Alan Hirsch, New York: St. Martin's Press, 218 pages, $17.95
Last summer I appeared as a panelist on John McLaughlin's CNBC talk show. After the show, several friends asked me how McLaughlin really was. I said, "He's a genuinely pleasant fellow, even though he yells a lot."
And John McLaughlin's yelling, as much as anything else, has irritated Beltway-area attorney Alan Hirsch to such an extent that he wrote Talking Heads: Political Talk Shows and Their Star Pundits. While he provides interesting background on the history of talk shows and biographies of several of today's stars, Hirsch arrives at disappointing conclusions. He ends up calling for laws (that's right) to protect the democratic process from being overwhelmed by scores of John McLaughlin (or Sam Donaldson) clones. He also mars his analysis with left-wing catchphrases and elitist clichés. Ultimately his criticisms boil down to: We should get rid of these shows because I don't like them.
Political talk shows—what Hirsch calls "television's op-ed page"—have been around since the 1950s. Most of the early entries were newsmaker shows like "Meet the Press" or "Face the Nation." Hirsch correctly notes that few of the bureaucrats and elected officials who appear as "newsmakers" actually say anything earthshaking on the air; so he concentrates on the shows with commentators who can provide insight while being insulated from the potential wrath of voters.
Hirsch is a fairly successful historian and biographer. He studies his subjects well and interviews many of them. Readers who know the pundits only from their television appearances might not know, for example, that Carl Rowan was ambassador to Finland, that Robert "Prince of Darkness" Novak is a highly regarded political historian, or that Sam Donaldson briefly sold insurance. (Well, the briefly part isn't surprising.)
But if you want the history, you have to wade through a lot of ideological muck. For example, Hirsch focuses on six shows: "Firing Line"; "Agronsky and Company/Inside Washington"; "The McLaughlin Group"; "The Capital Gang"; "Crossfire"; and "This Week With David Brinkley." He leaves out "The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour" and "Nightline" because, he says, they're basically newsmaker shows. Perhaps. But he also excludes "Washington Week in Review" because "the journalists report what has transpired on their beat while generally keeping their political views to themselves."
Excuse me? "Washington Week" is little more than a mutual admiration society for Beltway liberals. Routinely, soporific host Paul Duke leads a "discussion" about some social problem that demands federal action now. Quite often one panelist is a skillful analyst—Hedrick Smith, Juan Williams, and Thomas Friedman regularly appear—but their insights get lost in the wails for more government power.
Yet there are better round tables than "Washington Week" for political junkies. "Agronsky and Company," the first show to present a group of pundits commenting rapid-fire on the issues of the week, introduced television viewers to George Will. Will had developed a strong following with his syndicated newspaper column but didn't achieve stardom until Martin Agronsky gave him a weekly forum.
Hirsch explains what made Will special: Unlike the other "Agronsky" panelists, Will's "sentences not only parsed, but joined to form pretty paragraphs. His vocabulary was refined, and he sometimes spiced his remarks with a brief anecdote or appropriate quotation." The newspaper pundit became the political philosopher of the airwaves. While Will now stars on the Brinkley show, "Inside Washington" has another in-house star, Charles Krauthammer.
"Agronsky" inspired "The McLaughlin Group" and "Crossfire." But the pioneering show has had its critics. As an example, Hirsch cites a 1981 Michael Kinsley piece from The New Republic titled "Jerkofsky and Company," a bogus transcript featuring panelists Hugh Sidewall (whom Marvin Jerkofsky asks, "Hugh, do you have any brains left at all?"), George III (who reels off a string of centuries-old quotations), and Jack Curmudgeon ("Harrumph. Balderdash. Poppycock. Horsefeathers. Et cetera.").
While Kinsley certainly hit his mark, he couldn't get away with such a parody today: As the co-host of "Crossfire," Kinsley occasionally resembles a cartoon character himself.
Hirsch saves his deadliest venom for "The McLaughlin Group." It's unsophisticated, shallow, and too fast, he complains. The journalists who participate "take part in pointless catfights." And worst of all: It's harmful to political debate.
As a fan of "The McLaughlin Group" (it's my favorite round table), I recognize its shortcomings. It does have a very narrow focus and a brief shelf life. Yet it's great TV. Hirsch compares the show to a professional wrestling match, with the panelists portraying designated good guys and villains. But that's the fun of it.
And the regular panelists actually contribute more to the evaluation of issues than, say, "Crossfire," which simply frames every controversy in a left-right dichotomy. The Group's viewers know that Pat Buchanan will provide thoughtful, but highly partisan, commentary; Fred Barnes will attack the Wimps on the Left; Jack Germond, unlike most liberals these days, will champion government social programs and civil-liberties issues such as drug legalization; Mort Kondracke will somehow find a middle ground. And John McLaughlin will yell.
But Hirsch has his own solutions to undignified displays such as those on "The McLaughlin Group": "There is no shortage of legislative steps that can be taken." Hirsch would immediately restore the fairness doctrine and make the FCC a superagency run by Ben Bagdikian and other leftists. New laws would "democratize ownership of the media; [increase] corporate taxes; and [institute] a progressive tax on advertising."
Yes, Hirsch says, concerned viewers must "appeal to all parties to make the public interest paramount." Or he'll rescind your broadcast license. And what would "This Week with Alan Hirsch" resemble? "Firing Line." Wake me when it's over.
There are some legal problems with Hirsch's proposals—that pesky First Amendment, for example. But even if you buy the "public interest" violations Hirsch sanctimoniously cites, the roundtable shows don't deceive anyone: They deliver what they advertise. "McLaughlin," "Inside Washington," and "The Capital Gang" bill themselves as sources for the latest Beltway gossip. And they provide it.
The news junkie who wants lengthy discussions of the issues should watch "MacNeil/Lehrer," "Nightline," or the Brinkley show. If you can dedicate only an hour each week to talk shows, "This Week with David Brinkley" offers the best mix—strong reporting, newsmakers who actually say things (Ferdinand Marcos announced the Philippine elections on the show), and a vibrant round table.
It has also made David Brinkley a star once again. Nearly a half century in Washington hasn't stamped out Brinkley's witty, just-folks demeanor, as he demonstrated to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney just before the ground war began in the Persian Gulf. After extensive background on the sorry state of the Iraqi army, Brinkley asked, "If this were a poker game, what would you say Saddam Hussein was holding at the moment—a pair of nines?"
Still dissatisfied with TV punditry? There's another option for the terminally uninformed: print journalism. For less than the cost of basic cable service, a viewer can subscribe to the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times; for about the price of one premium cable channel, you can get home delivery of REASON, The New Republic, and National Review. If you don't have much time, or simply want to read what the TV pundits write, there are weekly tabloids that reprint only syndicated columns. They cost less than a buck a week. Options abound.
But those options bother Hirsch. While he recognizes the power television and its huge audiences can pack, he's afraid to permit TV to both entertain and enlighten viewers.
And there's a silly, conspiratorial tone to much of his criticism. "In part because most newspapers are owned by Republicans," he whines, "the most widely syndicated political opinion columnists are conservatives." PBS provides few public affairs alternatives because "the absence of independent funding makes public television dependent on underwriters who crave large audiences and no controversy." He's upset that conservatives Bob Novak and George Will are TV stars and would openly welcome broadcast prominence for leftists Christopher Hitchens and Colman McCarthy.
Hirsch does offer some valuable insights. He notes that the frenzy of "The McLaughlin Group"—unlike the more refined atmosphere of "Inside Washington" and "Brinkley"—can dazzle a viewer. But "the difference between fifteen seconds of two sentences [per commentator] and thirty seconds of four sentences," he says, "is not the difference between deep and shallow discourse."
He also recognizes that most of these shows are "played between the 40-yard lines." Indeed, on the "Brinkley" show, discussions that fall outside the Beltway Wisdom get dismissed out of hand. And while I can't blame Bob Novak or Mike Kinsley for chasing the big bucks that come with exposure on TV, it's a shame that we've lost Novak the political historian and Kinsley the brilliant editor.
With these criticisms, Hirsch hits the bull's-eye. But the only "discourse" he would permit is the slow-moving format of "Firing Line." How does "democracy" benefit from discussions no one watches?
The pundit round table isn't only a permanent fixture on weekend television; it may become our primary source of broadcast commentary. Perhaps audiences will tire of the rapid-fire format. But more serious commentators are entering this form of "infotainment"—Edward Luttwak has appeared on "The Capital Gang." These round-table shows can use thoughtful critics. It's too bad Alan Hirsch let crackpot ideology get in the way of some substantive analysis.
Rick Henderson is assistant managing editor of REASON.